Reporting Arafat Becomes Another Crisis

RAMALLAH – The remarks by Yasser Arafat’s wife Suha must have rattled the Palestinian leadership and some in the media back in Ramallah. She said some temporary leaders are conspiring to bury her husband alive. She added that he was fine and would return.

The fear of Yasser Arafat’s return informs the behavior of many a Palestinian politician and most journalists, says Hafez Barghouti, editor of the popular daily al-Hayat al-Jadida (Arabic for the "new life"). The newspaper published in Ramallah is funded by the Palestinian Authority but is fiercely independent.

"Everybody is afraid that Arafat will return after all," he says. "It explains some of the political confusion and it can clearly be seen in the press, where nobody dares to write openly about what is going to happen next, after Arafat."

Barghouti sees it as his "duty" to write openly about the health of Arafat and about the political situation to prepare people for what is to come. He says he has done so from the beginning, unlike other newspapers. He may be right.

"Unless we do something about it, our situation will explode and chaos will descend," he wrote in a recent commentary. "We need international sponsorship, so that we will not slide toward the worst. It is true that our president is sick. However, the sickness should not be passed on to our people and institutions."

This contrasts with some of the more respectful writing elsewhere. "Arafat roamed the world the way no other revolutionary leader did. He ran his revolution when he was present as well as when he was absent," says the pro-PA newspaper al-Ayyam. It is a more typical comment..

Barghouti says that even in his own newspaper some journalists are afraid to write openly about the situation. Not because of intimidation by pro-Arafat militants, as happened at times in the past, but out of fear or respect.

This respect tinged with fear can especially be seen in the official Palestinian radio and television broadcasts.

"Most people watch al-Jazeera to know about Arafat," says Basem Abu Sumaya, Palestinian Radio’s director of programming. "They have a correspondent in Paris, for example. Well, so do we, but he is too afraid to say anything."

Palestinians do turn mostly to Arab satellite stations, including Qatar-based al-Jazeera and Saudi-financed al-Arabiya for their news.

They will even listen to Israeli radio in their hunger for information. It is common to step into a taxi in Ramallah and hear the Arabic programming of the Voice of Israel.

Abu Sumaya’s colleague Zaal Abu Rukti is director of programming for television. He makes it clear that he is not too concerned with providing information and that he sees it as his duty to help the new leadership project an air of calm in these difficult times.

"As the official television we are part of the leadership and we have to do whatever it takes to help reassure the people that the institutions are functioning and that everything is going smoothly," he says.

He does not think that this poses problems of journalistic professionalism. "We have a responsibility to our national cause more than to professional journalism."

Abu Rukti has the air of a stalwart of the old nationalist revolutionaries of Arafat’s Fatah movement. In a fancy restaurant in Ramallah, he smokes and does not fast during the day in this fasting month of Ramadan.

Palestinian television has been showing nonstop scenes from the life of Yasser Arafat "because he is our historic leader, and the people feel very close to him," says Abu Rukti. Apart from that, he says, they give government officials "all the time they need" to address the people and show that the situation is under control.

The scenes can also be seen on a big screen in the center of town. The screen is almost totally ignored by the public out shopping for the feast at the end of the Ramadan day.

For radio, a bit more ambitious in its coverage, the lack of clarity about the fate of Yasser Arafat has been a major problem.

"We rely for our reports on the official statements, but there has been no clarity and we suffer because of that. It poses a big problem," says Abu Sumaya.

He says the radio does carefully try to broach the subject of the post-Arafat era.

He airs reports about who is now in charge of the salaries of government workers, for example. That is one major indicator of where the real power in the PA resides. And the broadcasts mention who has chaired certain government and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) meetings, another indication.

Barghouti deplores this ambiguity and the lack of hard analysis and commentary in the Palestinian press. "It is our duty to write about the power vacuum, the confusion over the succession and such things," he says. "It is our duty to prepare the people. Yasser Arafat is, after all, not immortal."

Read more by Ferry Biedermann